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Andrew Cuomo declaring victory on Election Day. (Newsday photo)

Newsday's striking coverage of the NY governor's race

SHOWCASE | January 02, 2011

A one-hour documentary, done on the fly, gives a narrative arc to political coverage, exposes high-level betrayals and brings back into view some old New York pols like Alfonse D-Amato, Ed Koch, and (in cameos) Mario and Matilda Cuomo. It's a multimedia effort: newspaper and online coverage and TV specials. Here Thomas Maier tells how it was put together.

By Thomas Maier

Investigating politicians and covering campaigns in print rarely provides the human insights that documentary videos can in revealing ambition and betrayal. But together, they can be a powerful approach to informing the public.

That's what we tried to do with "Campaign Season" -- an hour-long documentary about New York's topsy-turvy governor's race in 2010, along with more than a dozen Newsday stories that were part of the combined coverage. It was a joint project with Newsday and News12 Long Island, both owned by Cablevision, presented in print, on the web, in one-hour specials on News12 and on Cablevison's Video on Demand.

Unlike most documentaries of this size, "Campaign Season" wasn't a set play, so to speak, but rather a documentary on the fly, assembled over time in chapter form, with no clear idea of the final outcome until it happened. The first four chapters about the tumultuous GOP convention appeared around Labor Day. Another two -- about Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican primary winner Carl Paladino -- appeared in October just before the Election Day. The final seventh chapter -- looking at the results and what the new governor will face -- was published as part of a complete one-hour documentary appearing on Dec. 31, the day newly-elected Gov. Cuomo was inaugurated.

In this final version, there is an overall narrative arc propelled by the characters' ambition and, more interestingly, betrayal. In a year when the GOP did well around the nation, the New York Republicans self-destructed -- and this documentary explains why.

In Chapter One, the very first image is of former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, at a Long Island dinner last spring for GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio. But despite what D'Amato told his crowd that night, we learn in a later chapter that he was really for Democrat Andrew Cuomo and actually hated Lazio. Our Newsday print story explained the nitty-gritty details about D'Amato and the GOP, but there's something more powerful about watching D'Amato on video admit his key reason for disliking his party's favorite. (As it turns out, Lazio once favored naming Long Island's only federal courthouse for former President Teddy Roosevelt instead of D'Amato himself.)

The documentary was also on the cutting-edge of the news. In our installment on Oct. 14, 'Campaign Season' told Newsday's audience about Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo's $2.5 million income from his chief fundraiser when they were in private business together in Dubai -- the same day The New York Times featured that finding in a front-page story about his fundraiser Andrew Farkas.

Perhaps more significantly, this narrative catches the drama of being inside a political convention and the backstabbing among politicians vying for the nomination. The video also supplies profiles of all the major characters, warts and all, and let's our audience see why events happened as they did.

"Campaign Season" showed the political wrangling inside June's contentious GOP convention with several candid, exclusive interviews. In particular, the documentary shows how the state's GOP chairman, Edward Cox, tried to undermine party favorite Lazio by recruiting another opponent -- Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat who turned Republican just to run for governor.

In Chapter Five, former New York City mayor Ed Koch talked about how he blamed Andrew Cuomo for the 'Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo' signs in Koch's 1977 mayoralty race against his father, Mario Cuomo. In an interview, Koch says it took nearly 25 years to resolve his differences with Andrew Cuomo, who began his political career as a key strategist for his father.

In Chapter Six, "Campaign Season" tracked the rise of the Tea Party and its candidate Carl Paladino, who won a stunning Sept. 12 GOP primary upset against Lazio. The documentary explains Lazio's fundraising problems, his premature focus on a general race against Cuomo, and why Lazio failed to recognize Paladino's threat and the Tea Party's influence until it was too late.

The "Campaign Season" narrative provided much-needed context, a strong sense of the personalities and behind-the-scenes moves in one of the most remarkable gubernatorial campaigns in New York history. The Newsday documentary was launched in March when incumbent Gov. David Paterson, who first said he was running and then dropped out amid scandal, left a wide open field for potential candidates to become his successor.

Building this documentary was sort like those pre-fab houses, assembled one room at a time as they're delivered. Throughout at Newsday, we did the reporting, filmed the interviews, wrote the script, and provided the rough cut with narration for the documentary. But News12 news director Pat Dolan, whose family owns Cablevision, was crucial to getting this project done in an unprecedented way.

Dolan made sure News12 provided professional polish -- strong graphics, better narration and ample air time -- needed to present a full-fledged documentary. The documentary was published on both Newsday and News12 websites. Perhaps most notably, viewers could also watch the whole documentary on Cablevision's Video on Demand channel, where it can be seen at home on those large screens rather than a laptop or mobile. In a way, VOD is a whole new medium for in-depth reporting like this, available anytime someone wants to see it -- just like a newspaper.

This whole business of newspaper-produced documentaries is a new one and ever-evolving. Last year, Newsday video journalist John Paraskevas and I produced a large investigative print/video package called 'Fallout' about the role of Brookhaven National Lab in dealing with victims of nuclear arms testing in the Pacific. In that case, we had more time to present the whole thing as one series of stories and a documentary, published all at once.

But a political campaign is a demanding beast, and so we had to keep pace in installments, constantly relying on the strengths of one medium to help our coverage in another. That's why we called it documentary-making on the run.


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